“The Christian life is ascending and descending and back again” Pentecost 2024

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19. May 2024
Gen 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21

“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.

After the Flood, God divided the nations on the earth by the families of the sons of Noah, according to their generations. Beginning from Shem, Ham, and Japheth, more sons were born. The people of Babel and the surrounding regions were descendants of Ham by way of Cush and his son Nimrod. The incredible genealogy that extends from Noah and his three sons is recorded for us in Genesis 10. But by the time of the tower, there were many tribes, peoples, and nations. 

But then Moses records an amazing detail: “Now the whole earth had one language and one speech” (Gen 11:1). Despite generation after generation and spanning from Asia to the great sea, they were held together by a common language. Without a shared tongue, they could not collaborate, innovate, and build. But with a shared language, God declares, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.” And what had they attempted? They tried to build a tower to enter heaven without God, apart from His Word and faith, and disregarding the promise. 

The only way for you to enter into God’s kingdom is through the common language of the Christian confession of Christ crucified. You may think it childish and naive to build a tower to the heavens, but isn’t that how we still try to do it? Yes, our supermassive skyscrapers are obvious examples. But what about looking to travel to distant planets never meant to be inhabited? What about our vain attempts to transcend suffering and death? We elevate science and technology to the place of God, turning them into idols that we fear, love, and trust, along with this cult’s high priests in white lab coats. And when we “accomplish something,” we give them all praise and thanks, rather than God, who gave such gifts to men.

The people of Babel knew desperately the need to transcend suffering, loss, pain, and death. Their error was thinking that God had abandoned them, forgotten His promise to their first parents, and unless they did something and fast, they would be doomed forever. In their hubris, they built an artificial mountain and hoped to scale the tower into the very dwelling place of God. Or maybe some, at best, hoped to get God’s attention or impress them with their incredible feat. They needed salvation and quick. So, they built and built, hoping to push through what their genealogy told them every time they recited it. Despite living, they were still dying. It was time to rise up and get together and solve this worldwide crisis. Call it an epidemic, if you like.

But there are two problems. First, as Jesus taught Nicodemus, their efforts were futile. “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.” The only way to transcend sin and death and enter heaven is through the Woman’s Offspring, Jesus. He alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the door to the sheepfold. He is the eye of the needle and the narrow gate. The temple curtain was torn in two with the death of Jesus. Only through the forgiveness that’s in His shed blood can you live, breathe, and be resurrected on the last day. Build the biggest tower you want, dive to the depths of the sea, or fly to distant galaxies. You won’t defeat death apart from Jesus.

Second, God had given them a command at Creation and repeated it after the Flood that they contradicted. God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth,” just as He had said to Adam and Eve. And yet our temptation is to draw inward, to gather together, and fail to embark outward for fear, uncertainty, and disappointment. We think there’s strength in numbers, not strength in God’s promises. We’re so scared of failure that we’re like the turtle drawn into its shell. You might get hurt, robbed, or killed. The world is full of predators and predatory behavior. Not only does this affect our willingness to try new things, grow, and learn, but it puts shackles on the advancement of the Gospel.

The Christian Church has never been a Field of Dreams. If we build it (just right, big enough, impressive enough), then they will come. That’s Babel with its explicit rejection of God’s Word in command and promises. No, the mission given by Jesus to His apostolic Church is the expressed opposite of Babel. Rather than ascend to the heavens in a tower of our making, Jesus gives us to go down from the mountain under His authority, with His baptism, and to teach His teaching. The command of the Creation and Flood to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth finds its ultimate fulfillment as we go forth to all nations with the new song of salvation in Jesus.

We have gone into the world and are blessed with unique cultures, words, and ways. Yet, we never lose our common ancestry and humanity. That doesn’t mean we flatten all the wonderful diversity God has given us. We don’t need one world government, currency, or language of our making. That’s a utopian globalist vision doomed to fail, just like Babel. Whatever they propose to do apart from Christ will be divided and destroyed as it always has. 

But Jesus has something better for us. The Spirit gathered people from all over the known world and blessed them with repentance for the forgiveness of sins and new life in Baptism. They were gathered in not by their own design but by God’s doing. They were given a common language and one speech, now the Gospel of Christ Crucified. And receiving this gift, they returned to their homes, speaking to all the wonderful works of God. Gathered in and then sent forth. They then gathered again with Christians in their homes and were sent out into the world with Christ’s grace, mercy, and love. Think of your movement as a Christian in this world as in and then out, or up and then down. 

The pattern of the Christian life is ascending and descending and back again. And as we preach, teach, baptize, and feast, God will call to Himself all the elect. They will join us and become God’s children, too. And then we will together with them ascend not a Babel of our making, but God’s holy hill, Mount Zion, where God dwells with us and we with Him. Yes, this is the last day with the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting for all those who love Him and await His reappearing. But even today, we’re given to ascend to His altar, to feast with Him and on His body and blood, and receive even now the promise of resurrection, eternity, and heaven. And then to go forth with His blessing, made fruitful by the Spirit, multiplying and filling the earth with new life in Christ. And then back again and up the mountain to be filled and fed with Christ’s Word and gifts. 

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin